When Coroebus won the first event of the first Olympic Games, he received an olive branch. He had trained for one month and passed an exam attesting that he was of the right moral fiber. Within 50 years, morally upright Olympic athletes performed naked.
The London Olympics begin July 27. Athletes no longer perform naked, as most spectators would deem it scandalous. The real scandal however is with a disembodied faith. It forgets how Olympic athletes’ nakedness pictured how Christians become godly.
In 39 days NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics begins. The modern Olympics has become a cash cow for cable TV, urban renewal project for host cities, crass signboard for corporate sponsors, and a springboard to financial gain for athletes who perform well. It didn’t start this way.
The first Games were held in Greece in 776 BC. They were only open to Greek male citizens. Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers arrived four weeks early to undergo a full month of training. Judges assessed their physical, moral, and spiritual suitability for the games. Even if a candidate was physically fit, he couldn’t compete unless morally fit. The winner of the first event was a baker from Eleia – Coroebus of Elis.
As the Games developed, the Spartans joined in. They loved their gods and viewed fitness as a sign of godliness. It is believed that in 720 BC, a Spartan named Megarian Orsippus introduced the tradition of athletic nudity. It was deemed suitable for morally fit athletes to be unencumbered while performing at the games. It is from this Olympic practice that we have our word “gymnasium.” It is derived from the Greek word “gumnaso” meaning “naked.” Competing naked was meant as a tribute to the gods, to enhance athletic performance, and to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body.
The Games were still popular when the Romans took Greece, but were going downhill. When the morally unfit Emperor Nero decided to compete in the Olympics, he chose a horse race where the driver steers ten horses. Nero was not the most skillful driver and fell off his chariot, failing to even finish the race. The judges still named him the winner. Degraded, the Olympics finally disappeared in AD 393.
It took another 1,300 years for the gospel to be degraded, or disembodied. The gospel is the union of divinity and humanity, graphically told in our bodies. It’s felt in our sexuality, especially husband-wife sexual consummation, wrote the Apostle Paul (Eph. 5:32). Paul saw the gospel played out in the Olympic Games. In 1 Timothy 4:7, he writes, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” Yes, it’s the Greek word “gumnaso.” Paul is saying get your body unencumbered as a tribute to the gospel and to encourage appreciation of the human body – all to produce godliness.
This is the ancient “full-body” faith that views the human body as an adversary or ally in spiritual growth. Our bodies are not neutral. Godliness requires exercising our bodies so that they cooperate with our spirit. It’s gained in ways similar to the Olympic Games played before spectators. As the writer of Hebrews put it, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (12:1-2).
It is instructive to note that Jesus as author and perfecter of faith arose from the grave naked. On Good Friday, the Roman guards stripped Jesus to gamble for his clothes. Roman crucifixion required a man hang naked. After Jesus died, the women wrapped his body in burial clothes. Three days later, when they looked in the tomb, they found the burial clothes but no Jesus. It is believed Christ had a gloriously redeemed naked body. This was in fact a widely held assumption in the church for over 16 centuries.
A godly body can be viewed naked. It is not pornographic. The Apostle Paul wrote that believers have been buried with Jesus “through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead… we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). Jesus was raised naked. This is why, in the 2nd century, we read that men, women and children were required to remove all clothing, jewelry, and hair fastenings in the first recorded liturgy of baptism. This is why, in the early 1500s, Michelangelo painted Jesus in the nude in “The Risen Christ.” The embodied gospel requires an unencumbered life. This is why nakedness is depicted in all sorts of early Christian mosaics and frescoes depicting baptism. It was deemed pure, not pornographic.
In 1896, the Olympic Games were revived in Athens. The world had changed however between 393 and 1896. The Western Enlightenment redefined the core of humanity as located in the cranium. The body merely served to transport the brain. New renditions of the gospel developed in the aftermath, mostly Protestant and mostly evangelical. The result was an Enlightenment and largely disembodied understanding of the gospel as well as human nature. By the mid-1800s, Victorians, many of them evangelicals, covered their entire bodies with clothing – except the head. It remained the one unsullied part of the human body.
The irony, or tragedy, is that a disembodied gospel makes for an encumbered life – not a godly one. It renders Christians incapable of accounting for the artwork featured in the Louvre in Paris. It displays thousands of paintings depicting men and women completely naked. Children of all ages view them everyday. Much of the modern church (as well as the Motion Picture Association of America) cannot make sense of this. The graphic gospel can. The Bible defines anything out of context as obscene. Pornography is observing human sexuality out of context. Nudity – like that seen in the Louvre – is viewing the human body in the context of the unencumbered life so necessary for godliness.
I’m not suggesting Olympic athletes perform naked. It might however be beneficial for Christians in the Western world, especially those malformed by a malodorous disembodied gospel, to learn why Olympic athletes once performed naked. They might see why Paul viewed this as the best picture for getting your body unencumbered for the purpose of godliness. Who knows? We might begin winning a few more games.